Citadel vs. Presbyterian basketball

Citadel sophomore Zane Najdawi is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds for The Citadel (Zach Bland/Citadel Athletics)

To celebrate Christmas on Sunday, The Citadel basketball team gathered at McAlister Field House for — a practice?

"First time in 14 years of coaching I've had to do that," Bulldogs coach Duggar Baucom said of practicing on Christmas Day.

The reason for the holiday workout is Wednesday's Southern Conference opener against UNC Greensboro at McAlister Field House, the first league game of the season.

"The league decided in mid-summer to schedule a game on Dec. 28," Baucom said. "We tried to change it, but we couldn't come to an agreement. So we practiced on Christmas, then twice on the 26th and again Tuesday to get ready."

The Bulldogs, with eight freshmen on their roster, need all the work they can get to prepare for a SoCon slate that looks even more difficult now than it did at the start of the season.

The Southern Conference has turned in a relatively strong pre-conference performance, ranking 15th among Division I conferences in the latest RPI. That's an upgrade on the RPIs of 19th, 24th and 30th the league posted the previous three seasons. Chattanooga and ETSU, both 9-3, rank in the top 100, with only VMI below No. 231 out of 351 teams.

League teams have combined for 18 non-conference road wins so far, the most since the 2007-08 season. Victims include the SEC's Mississippi State, which lost to East Tennessee State, and Tennessee, which fell to Chattanooga. Furman lost by just six at Michigan, while UNCG pushed Wake Forest in a 78-75 loss and Wofford lost by six at Georgia Tech.

"It's been really good," Baucom said of the league's pre-conference performance. "You look through the standings, and you wonder where the wins are going to come from. You've got to play really well at home and hope you have some good fortune on the road."

Chattanooga and ETSU were picked to lead the league, but coach Wes Miller's 9-4 UNCG team might have out-performed expectations so far. The Spartans have seven D-I wins, including a 75-73 victory over UNC Asheville, ranked No. 72 in the RPI.

Four UNCG players are averaging in double figures, led by 6-3 guard Francis Alonso at 12.1 points per game. Senior point guard Diante Baldwin makes the Spartans go, at 11.6 points and 4.1 assists. R.J. White, a 6-8, 255-pound senior, will be a tough matchup inside, averaging 11 points and 6.3 rebounds. Subs Demetrius Troy and 6-9 James Dickey, two players Baucom tried to recruit at VMI, are making big contributions off the bench.

"UNCG is always very talented, and Wes does a great job of recruiting," said Baucom, whose Bulldogs lost twice to the Spartans last year. "They always have really good players, and we tried hard to recruit Dickey and Troy at VMI, so we know how good they are. Baldwin is as good a point guard as there is in the league, the most important guy on their team.

"We will have to do good job on Baldwin, limit their second shots and hopefully turn them over some."

As for his own team, Baucom said he's pleased with how his freshmen have developed during a 7-6 pre-conference slate that includes a 4-3 mark against fellow mid-major squads. Two of those losses, by 97-91 to Campbell and 120-111 in double overtime at UMBC, are games the Bulldogs could have won.

"Those are the only two games I was really disappointed with," Baucom said. "We were up by 10 against Campbell at home, and I wish we had made one or two more plays against UMBC. They are a really good team, and we could have won with a play here or there. So those are the only two I really have any disappointment in."

Freshmen guards Preston Parks and Frankie Johnson have emerged as steady performers in support of sophomores Zane Najdawi and Quayson Williams, and freshman forward Ezekiel Balogun "has been our best player since we came back" from the holiday break, Baucom said.

"What I'm really pleased about is how much our freshmen have grown and contributed," Baucom said, "and how well Zane has played. I feel like we've got a lot of different weapons."

• Freshman Aaron Washington, who had played just 20 minutes in four games, has left the program and will transfer, Baucom said. The 6-3 guard from Washington, D.C., averaged 3 points in those four games, with seven against Johnson University on Nov. 13.

UNC Greensboro at The Citadel

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: McAlister Field House

RECORDS: UNCG 9-4, 0-0; The Citadel 7-6, 0-0

RADIO: 98.5-FM, 1340-AM

WEB: ESPN3

NOTES: The Citadel opens SoCon play on a two-game skid, with losses at Virginia Tech (113-71) and UMBC (120-111 in double overtime) … The Citadel leads the nation in scoring at 103.2 points per game, and is giving up 101.8 ppg, which ranks 346th out of 347 D-I teams … Citadel F Zane Najdawi is third in the SoCon in scoring (17.9 ppg) and second in rebounding (8.2 rpg) … The Citadel is No. 220 in RPI, with its best win by 97-92 over No. 208 USC Upstate … UNCG is coming off a 78-56 loss at Georgetown … The Spartans rank No. 165 in RPI, and their best win is by 75-73 over No. 72 UNC Asheville … UNCG’s Francis Alonso, a 6-3 sophomore, is averaging 12.1 ppg, with senior PG Diante Baldwin at 11.6 ppg, 6-8 center R.J. White at 11.0 and 6-6 junior Marvin Smith at 10.9 ppg.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at (843) 937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC